Gandhi gaffe dims Murdoch's Star


New Delhi

When Rupert Murdoch visited India last year, cabinet ministers and political party chiefs queued up to pay him obeisance more befitting a Mogul emperor than a media mogul. But if he returns, Mr Murdoch now faces arrest for insulting the most revered of all Indians, Mahatma Gandhi.

In what amounts to only a gnat-sized nuisance for the global telecommunications conqueror, an arrest warrant was issued against Mr Murdoch on Monday by a Bombay magistrate. He and four people associated with his Star-TV company - beamed in by satellite from Hong Kong - are accused of defaming Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual father of modern India. Bail has been set for the Australian-born billionaire at just pounds 100. The unwanted bad publicity, however, could cause far more damage to Mr Murdoch's wealth.

It was nothing that Mr Murdoch said personally against Gandhi. But as owner of Star-TV, Mr Murdoch is being held accountable by the Indian courts for what is broadcast on network. A racy chat show called Nikki Tonight, which features much tittle-tattle on Bombay's film industry, has set Indians fuming. The hostess, Nikki Bedi, a former actress whose dazzling smile, her critics said, concealed an absence of much brain activity, was gossiping with Ashok Row Kavi, a gay activist and noted Bombay gadfly.

During the fateful programme, aired on 4 May, Ms Bedi egged her guest into repeating scandalous remarks that Mr Kavi had made years before in the press against the much-loved father of modern India. Mr Kavi called Gandhi "a bastard bania". A bania is a Hindu born into the merchant caste, as Gandhi indeed was. But the word also has snide connotations of miser and sharp-dealer. Ms Bedi did not challenge this absurdity - money meant nothing to Gandhi, who lived like a peasant. Instead, the hostess sniggered like a schoolgirl on hearing a dirty joke.

These slurs might have passed into deserved oblivion if a great-grandson of Gandhi had not been watching the show. In his many interviews later, Tushar Gandhi made a point of insisting he was not a regular viewer of Nikki Tonight's salacious show, but he just happened to be channel surfing when he hit upon Mr Kavi's rude comments.

Once Mr Gandhi raised his objections, the roar of outrage that followed was deafening. It led to wild denunciations in parliament not only against Ms Bedi but also Star-TV, with some parties demanding that it be banned from India as punishment for airing such "highly objectionable, distressing and slanderous remarks". It touched a nerve of xenophobia, for many Indians feel that with their country opening up to the West after so many years of closed-off socialism, their traditional values are now under siege from the American music channel MTV and the banal decadence of soaps such as Baywatch, purveyed by Mr Murdoch.

Star-TV's management took the show off immediately and apologised for hurting Indian feelings. After the home minister, S B Chavan, vowed that the government would take action against the offenders, Ms Bedi and her guest left India. Warrants are also out for their arrest. The show's producer is also wanted by police.

Police yesterday were expected to raid Mr Murdoch's Bombay offices and confiscate tape cassettes of Nikki Bedi's final chat show. Mr Gandhi's lawyer, M P Vashi, expressed the fear, however, that the cassette of the offending programme might have been destroyed or gone missing.

Star-TV in Bombay refused to comment on the affair or what Mr Murdoch's response to the arrest warrant might be. "It's being discussed at the highest management levels," said one company source.

No doubt Mr Murdoch will shrug off these defamation charges. Far more worrying for him is an assault on his Indian telecommunications empire by foreign rivals. With its 900 million people, India is one of the pillars of Mr Murdoch's colossal Asian market. However, MTV and Cable News Network International recently signed contracts which allow them to piggy-back on the state-owned television network and link up to an Indian satellite transmitter. This will triple their reach over Indian audiences, leaving Murdoch's Star-TV dimly behind.